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Looking back at the Brezhnev era

Read more on:  USSR, Brezhnev, Soviet elite

14:40 20/11/2012
Leonid Brezhnev Addresses 17th Trade Union Congress

The interest in Leonid Brezhnev’s era and its importance are determined by the fact that many current stereotypes and customs are rooted in that period. All ideologies of post-Soviet Russia have also originated in that era. The very idea of the Russian Federation dates back to the same time albeit not as a political project (because the field of political mentality was barren in the Brezhnev era) but as a set of political concepts and dreams that had accumulated in the minds of Soviet officials and intellectuals.

We are still using the intellectual capital of that era. One of its features was the absence of political and ideological representation. Newspapers and periodicals were stuffy even by Soviet standards. Everything was done on the sly. There were secret meetings of intellectuals who were hanging around in the smoking rooms of Soviet research institutes and Komsomol district committees. Some of them later on turned into democrats, Yegor Gaidar’s economists, political strategists and major businessmen. That era was very substantial but also absolutely leak-proof. Political speeches of that time had nothing to do with the brewing processes inside the state machinery and society. There was no freedom of speech and hence no opportunity to discuss any ideas. Under the circumstances the figure of Brezhnev played a key role.

In fact, Brezhnev’s era covers several periods. His political career ended in tragedy because he failed to cope with one-man rule having been successful between 1964 and 1969 as the first person and front man of the collective leadership after the fall of Nikita Khrushchev. At the end of his rule Brezhnev turned into a kind of a sleeping policeman in the way of social progress. Personally, he was not to blame for the shameful condition of society that had to await his death. The system had driven itself into a deadlock where there was no other way of changing the leader. The initial period of collective leadership by Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin (chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers) and Nikolai Podgorny (chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet Presidium) saw the peak of the economic growth and rapid improvement of living and consumption standards. It gave an impetus to social development for the bigger part of the 1970s.

Strictly speaking, the superpower was created by Stalin and Khrushchev.  Under Brezhnev's rule the development of the state ground to a halt.

I don’t think we should compare the current stagnation to that of Brezhnev’s time. It goes without saying that the practice of repeated presidencies evokes certain associations. However, there was no limit on the term of the general secretary in the Soviet Union. He could only be replaced by a coup d’état. During Brezhnev’s rule the Soviet Union was on the verge of becoming a “normal” state. The very concept of mature socialism was an attempt to move away from ideocracy to realism like China did under Deng Xiaoping. But this inevitably raised the issue of leaderships. Brezhnev was very handy for the Politburo in his role of a human plug because he removed the need for a tug of war. All high-rankers were more afraid of each other than of Brezhnev. They were also scared by a prospect of infighting in the Politburo. Alexander Shelepin (KGB chairman and Politburo member) tried to make it to the top with his program. Alexei Kosygin had a serious economic program but he did not claim political leadership. Yury Andropov also had some projects. That said they all kept their ideas to themselves. Anyone who dared come up with his own program was thrown out of the team. Finally, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected to the top, largely as a result of a “negative selection” and physical extinction.

The current situation is different although there are some aesthetic similarities. The head of state has turned into a sacred figure although he does not see himself as such. This is how his entourage views him. Vladimir Putin suits every clan in this role because he weakens the threat from any other clan. He guarantees their common security and the collective security of the entire premium class. In the USSR, the Communist Party was a buffer between the Politburo and other Soviet elite, on the one hand and rank-and-file citizens on the other. This buffer guaranteed the safety of society and the state but it no longer exists, and this is why the elite is afraid of the people. The gap between the living standards of different strata is horrendous. Nothing like this was possible in the USSR by any stretch of the imagination. The summer houses of Politburo members would not seem shabby today but they would not look impressive, either. Putin has to ensure the legitimacy of the illegitimate elite and this is a drain on his personal strength and potential. He is protecting the elite against the masses, as it were. This is paralyzing his efforts and creating a deadlock that he is trying to overcome albeit without much success.

Different societies are stable in different ways. Soviet society pursued a certain utopian goal that survived despite the far-gone kitchen-sink de-ideologization in the USSR. The goal of building an ideal communist society had a major influence on practical policy by restricting totalitarian attitudes. Totalitarianism in the USSR was unique because it was limited by its own declared principles. People had no reason to be afraid of the police. The atmosphere was entirely different than today. But this society recoiled from its own self and repudiated the goal besmirched by the crimes of the Stalinist period and the stagnation of the Brezhnev era.

Now we have a society that does not have any goals. It is a society of current tasks, in which nobody is responsible for anything. This allows the government to guarantee its citizens a certain minimum, some social standards. Outwardly, society in Russia looks like that of Western welfare states but it ensures social standards by renouncing political and economic competition. In fact, it is similar to Soviet society but without its ideology and civilized aura. The catastrophe of 1991 destroyed many moral regulators at the everyday, social and political levels. What we got was a peculiar kind of society without principles, a hollow society without goals. This vacuum is occupied by the powers that be and money. This is not so in Europe and was not like this in the Soviet Union.

The cult of success was not pronounced in the USSR. On the one hand, this cult is created by competition, but on the other this competition develops even in the absence of a normal market. In Russia the cult of success is monetized far more than in the capitalist West. Money or fame is the only criterion of success. Nothing like this was true in the Soviet Union. There were idols – actors or singers – but success came in many forms. Idealistic motives were appreciated. Success based on education or a career in science evoked high respect. Independence was also valued but it could lead to trouble. Independent minds or dissenters could be expelled albeit such expulsion was still an honor because it was a model of conduct. In general, idealistic motives played a big role in Soviet society until the very end. Impoverished and thievish from top to bottom, it was still clinging to ideals. Soviet people could address the state with ideological objections.

Today the Russian state will not accept any objections. It believes that a lack of ideology justifies a lack of any principles. In this sense our model of capitalism differs from Europe’s or America’s. This country rejects any moral or ideological legitimization. The Soviet state could not afford this and collapsed under the avalanche of ideological and moral grievances.

Gleb Pavlovsky is Head of the Effective Politics Foundation; Editor-in-chief and Publisher of the Russian Journal and the Pushkin Magazine; Professor at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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